The year was 1995. I was 10 years old. It must have been an exhausting day for Appa at work. It was rare to see him ask anyone for a favour unless he was tired or sick. This was one of those rare days. He unlocked the door (my mom and sis were out and I was home alone) and walked in. He went around the house, presumably looking for my mother whom he couldn’t find. His forehead was crinkled up in pain and exhaustion. He looked at me and said, “Could you make me a cup of tea please? I think it’ll relieve my headache.”
I looked at him, with fear on my face. My eyes darted left and right, wrought with despair. I summoned up the courage and said, “Appa, I cannot make you tea. Well, I can but you’d have to drink all 3 cups. Amma has taught me how to make tea but only in multiples of 3 (for my mom, my sis and myself). So I can make 3, 6, 9, 12, 15. You see where I’m going with this? The thing is, I’m bad at divison – it’s that one math problem I haven’t learnt to solve.”
Appa looked at me with a kind of incredulity I had never seen on his face. That day, I made 3 cups of tea and I think both my dad and I learnt a lesson.
Divided by taste (and math) but united by chai: it’s a tale my entire family reminisces over, every time we all get together for tea.
Chai, as demonstrated by the above story, depends on multiple variables – math, ingredients that make the masala, the relative proportions of those ingredients, and, most importantly, context. Context of how we got used to drinking tea in an Indian household – who it was made by and how kadak (strong) or fiki (sans sugar) it needed to be, given the audience that was going to drink it.
Over time, I think I have perfected what to me is the perfect cup of masala chai.
Here’s the recipe for it!
Masala Ingredients for 2 small cups or 1 big cup of chai:
1 piece (1½-inch) fresh ginger, unpeeled
6 – 7 whole black peppercorns
1/2 a stick of cinnamon
4 cardamom pods
3 – 4 leaves of basil (optional)
Crush the ginger and the spices coarsely in a mortar-pestle. Bring 1 ½ cups of water with the crushed paste to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a spoon of jaggery to the mix ( I don’t like my chai too sweet and I am on my way to cutting out all sugars completely) and let it boil for about 10 minutes, till the liquid is fragrant and reduced. Add 2 ½ tsps of black tea (I use Indian tea dust, which is strong and is perfect for masala chai) and let it steep for about 2 mins.
Return the pan back to medium-high heat and stir in a cup of milk or as you desire; this depends on the colour/ milkiness of the tea you prefer. Stir occasionally until the mixture begins to foam up and boil, about 3 minutes. As it reaches the top of the pan, keep a close watch and turn it off just before it boils over. There’s a thrill to it, I simply cannot explain.
Strain the masala chai through a fine sieve and serve it piping hot!